Slow and Deep Changemaking: The Lessons of Standing Rock, Sacredness and Earth

2006 Retreat at Open Ground, Harrodsburg, Kentucky with Winona LaDuke

At Standing Rock, the resistence of indigenous communities and the widespread solidarity from activists and organizers across movements, inspire us to act, to dig deep within and to strenthen our committments to de-colonization of our bodies and land.

Standing Rock lifts up the Earth as a sacred and living component in our processes towards liberation. Indigenous peoples have always held that interconnection is the foundation for how we move in the world; mystical elements of many religions and spiritual traditions also support the power of interconnection. The mind, body and heart/soul are microcosms for the larger macro realities we interact with daily. Furthermore, sciences like biology, physics and astrology link the effects clearly between living organisms and matter. Interconnection is more than a spiritual concept and it is essentially spiritual, mystical and transformative.

Winona LaDuke, an activist and environmentalist who ran for Vice President on the Green Party ticket, is an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg of the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota. In her book, Recovering the Sacred, The Power of Naming and Claiming, she writes in the introduction:

“How does a community heal itself from the ravages of the past? I found an answer in the multifaceted process of recovering what is ‘sacred.’ This complex and intergenerational process is essential to our vitality as Indigenous people and ultimately as individuals.”

Her words guide us towards the very answers we are grappling with in our social justice work. Connecting to the sacred, is in essence building love and compassion for ourselves, each other and the world we are a part of. Intergenerational, multiracial, healing and interconnected changemaking will only occur through a vulnerable leadership approach, through the building of a more reciprocal relationship with the Earth and in recognition and sharing with each other of our own pain. A commitment to social change reflects the Earth when we are in relationship with mentors and comrades across the intersections and generations.

In the summer of 2006, I spent a weekend with Winona LaDuke and nine other women changemakers at a retreat site nestled in the hollers of Eastern Kentucky.

I recall the final leg of the journey there, a rough dirt road that opened into a valley of buzzing insects, clucking chickens and a few longhaired dogs eager to receive a pat on the head as I opened the car door.

I was uncertain what would transpire that weekend or if I even belonged. I was 26, in my first year of graduate school at the University of Louisville in Pan African Studies and helping to build up the recently established Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research, an organization that bore the name of one of my white antiracist mentors, the late Anne Braden. Anne Braden had given me the language of antiracism; however, I was still learning it’s application in community.

I arrived in that space with a lot of fear that I would make a mistake, that I would say the wrong thing and that I would feel and be called out as not belonging. I quickly learned this space was intergenerational and multiracial; women from all over Kentucky were in attendance — artists, writers and activists. I felt a mixture of honor to be sharing space with them along with anxiety about my newness to activist spaces.

As with most retreats I had attended in the past, I anticipated an agenda; however Winona LaDuke, the retreat leader, leaned back in the wooden chair, taking in the group, which was mostly made up of white women. Many of the women were much more familiar with LaDuke’s work than I and had been working in social justice for decades. Retreat participants were teeming with questions. However, she was patient and kept their urgency at bay.

She walked to the easel and began to draw circles and spirals and graphed out the story of Indigenous people’s resistance since the beginning of the white man’s arrival to North America.

She did not spare us the details, she did not coddle folks; her assertions were clear and concise. The truth was hard; searing details of bodies and earth cut open for the benefit of greed, capitalism and in the name of progress. Colonization and white supremacy was (and is) bloody work, staked and punctured into the bodies of Native people, Black people and onto the Earth itself.

I felt the heaviness of history in my body. I had my place in this genocide. My ancestors were in all likelihood a part of it and the fact that I didn’t even know my own family’s history was a clear indication of my privilege. I felt uncomfortable and queasy. I remember bringing up some of these feelings to the group and LaDuke directed me to process with the other white women separately. I was learning that some conversations were not for multiracial spaces when you were still learning the history of the world from a decolonized perspective. I learned that healing and connection across differing experiences, is patient work. I learned that unlearning white privilege is often publicly uncomfortable but also an opportunity for tender and vulnerable healing.

Later, we looped colorful beads in designs into muslin cloth. LaDuke took pauses in the midst of conversation to step outside and watch the mist rise from the floor of the valley. She reminded us to appreciate the world outside. To delight in the water from the stream during down time, to look up at the stars, to pause long enough to feed the chickens and to feel the moistness from the morning dew on our skin and in our mouths as we opened them up to inhale and to exhale.

The day began when it did. We were expected to connect to each other and with the natural world around us; to tunnel deep within, to take pauses and be in silence, to make music or art as we were moved to. I grappled with the responsibility of being at this sacred space: a young white woman new to activism and fumbling to show up in all of my unknowing, breaking open in pain and in hope in the process. I remember spending parts of the day in the steamy loft, writing, reading and often crying. I felt alone and uncertain; my social anxiety was high but I also recognized that the pain I felt inside was moving me closer to an openness I had always yearned for. So, I stayed. I was able to stay present in my body with the pain of breaking open, because of the ways conversations about injustice unfolded over food, through stitching beads on cloth, shaking maracas and when my barefeet sank into the ground of that grand valley. Earth is an essential teacher for changemakers. Earth reminds us why this work matters and reflects to us the natural slow and deep rhythms of sustainable processes and mystical connection.

Winona was clear: the Earth is alive and the work of our time is to reconnect to it or to destroy life at its very root. Our responsibility is to connect to the pain within and to salve our communities, and our work with a pain that leads us towards a deep commitment to healing, an intention she reminded us has no endpoint.

Through the years, working with organizations and changemakers in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, the high rises of New York and through video conferences with activists in Mexico City and the UK, I’ve come to understand that the work of interconnection, the work of repairing, and the work of liberation, is slow and deep work, like the Earth. There really is no winning or victory endpoint; the outcomes arrive during the process, through deeper understanding of our interconnectivity and cultivating a more tender awareness and showing up to a more authentic and vulnerable connection with each other.

The process is like the mist that rises in the green Eastern Kentucky valleys to reveal sparkling blades of grass that soak the feet that sink into it’s earth. Changemaking is a transformative process that is long and deep, slow and wide and it is magnificent in its power to heal us, the world and Earth. This is why we continue to show up. There are arcs, corners, mountains and holes in the process of showing up for social justice. To create a sustainable approach to long haul organizing requires structures and systems that reflect and respect the natural ebbs and flows of Earth and Spirit.

The Indigenous peoples at Standing Rock remind us that connection is all around. Resources are at our ready and sacredness isn’t about belief, it’s about respect. Water is the very nectar of life. This truth is radical and it is breaking us open to the truth of interconnection. Indigenous people have long recognized this simple but powerful connection; as usual, we have not been listening to them or to the Earth.

I recently finished a book by Carlo Rovelli, called Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which covers explanations of time, space, heat and black holes. However, his last chapter on humans is the most powerful.

“That which makes us specifically human does not signify our separation from nature; it is a part of that self-same nature.”

He describes how human beings are aware of what we do and yet are unwilling to stop our destruction:

“The brutal climate and environmental changes that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us — especially since public and political opinion prefers to ignore the dangers that we are running, hiding our heads in the sand.”

And finally, despite this violence we enact, “We are made of the same stardust of which all things are made, and when we are immersed in suffering or when we are experiencing intense joy, we are being nothing other than what we can’t help but be: a part of our world.”

The Earth is part of us and we are a part of Earth.

Interconnection is proven by science.

As Satish Kumar so eloquently lays out, in his article titled The Link Between Soil, Soul and Society, “Meditate on the fact that you represent the totality of the universe. There is nothing in the universe that is not in you, and there is nothing in you that is not in the universe. The universe is the macrocosm and you are the microcosm. You are earth, air, fire, water, imagination, creativity, consciousness, time and space — you have all this in your soul, in your genes and in your cells. You are billions of years old.”

Earth is sacred. Humans are sacred.

What will we do with it?

Additional Reading and Action

Standing Rock Protests, This is Only the Beginning

To read more from Winona LaDuke on what’s happening at Standing Rock, read this.

Black Lives Matter Movement, also makes the connections for us on why Standing Rock is so important.

Join Radical Well, where folks gather around the topics of interconnected leadership and also recieve the free guidebook, Practice Showing Up: A Practice Guide for White People Working for Racial Justice.